Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.
Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.
Hannah Arendt was a bold thinker. One of the most controversial of her many provocative opinions was her support for the right of social discrimination. Arendt fiercely defended equality in public affairs and in politics, but she also saw equality as necessarily limited to the political sphere. Thus, Arendt strongly justified the right of Jews to spend their vacations at Jewish-only resorts as well as the right of others to "cater to a clientele that wishes not to see Jews while on holiday." Importantly, Arendt made a distinction between resorts on the one hand and buses, restaurants, theatres and museums on the other. The distinction is based on the criteria that some people go to resorts to congregate with others like themselves (they all are Jewish, all Muslim, all Catholic, or they all like to ski) while people who use buses and restaurants and museums are using "services which, whether privately or publicly owned, are in fact public services that everyone needs in order to pursue his business and lead his life." For Arendt, these private services are in the public domain and thus must be protected from social discrimination in order to guarantee political equality in the public sphere. And yet, Arendt affirms not only the right, but also the importance, of social discrimination as a necessary antidote against conformism. "The danger of conformism in this country--a danger almost as old as the Republic--is that, because of the extraordinary heterogeneity of its population, social conformism tends to become an absolute and a substitute for national homogeneity." In other words, the rise of the social realm "which has only one opinion and one interest"--whether in the one-interest of economic rationality or the one opinion of polite society--leads to the expectation that all citizens will behave, follow innumerable rules, and live according to normal standards that "exclude spontaneous action or outstanding achievement."
It is worth recalling Arendt's fear of the dangers presented by social conformity and her consequent defense of social discrimination in light of the intense anger directed at the State of Indiana and anyone who might dare to defend the state's passage of a law protecting persons and businesses from legal action if they refuse business deals that violate their religious beliefs. It is one thing to support the right to marry whomever one wants, which Hannah Arendt did. She specifically says that marriage is a private right and that the state should not in any way intrude on a person's private decision of whom to marry, be they of another race or of the same sex. She also fundamentally rejected those laws that would permit restaurants, bus lines, or museums to refuse service to gays or to Jews on religious grounds. Even when privately owned, these businesses operate in the public sphere and thus must treat all people equally. But if a business wants to only provide wedding cakes for gay weddings or another business only wants to provide wedding cakes for heterosexual weddings, the logic of Arendt's position (one should not speak for what Arendt would in fact say) also means that she would likely support that right and would most certainly oppose the societal and state efforts to force religious individuals to forgo their right to association. If the Indiana law would in fact allow restaurants to not serve homosexuals (as some of its critics but not its supporters suggest), it is unjust and would need to be rescinded or amended. But the cacophony of criticism has drowned out such nuance. The demand from critics is that Indiana affirm that the law not permit any social discrimination whatsoever. And Indiana has complied.
We don't have to agree with Arendt, god forbid. But one reason her thought is so important is because it provokes us to think deeply about the rise and danger of social conformity in the modern age. Arendt was clear that all public discrimination must be fought vigorously. But it will do all of us some good to think a bit more about her equally strong defense of social discrimination. Arendt pushes us to ask, are their meaningful limits to the drive for social equality?
Dylan Davis, a student from Bard College Berlin, penned the winning paper in the Hannah Arendt Center's essay contest on Hate and the Human Condition. The contest was open to students taking classes on "Hate and the Human Condition" at Al Quds University in East Jerusalem, American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Bard College Berlin, and Bard College in Annandale, NY. The courses were part of a Hannah Arendt Center program to explore the fact and meaning of hate, an emotion that has persisted and thrived in nearly every era of human existence. While groups and movements seek to eradicate or limit or ameliorate hatred, hate continues to evolve and thrive. We wanted to ask whether hate is an unavoidable part of human existence and whether hatred, if it is human, might also be valuable in some ways. Is there, for example, a benefit to hating those who are evil? Professors teaching the four classes nominated 10 papers for consideration in the essay contest. Davis' winning essay argues that against the common sense that increasing equality would reduce hate, experience teaches otherwise. "The different revolutions our class analyzed all conceived of equality as their proper end. Hate was symptomatic of either the revolutionary spirit or the conditions that led to revolution. Because of this, one might easily suppose that when revolutions reach their completion, with equality supposedly realized, hate would dissipate under this new order. Nonetheless, it always seems to survive and, paradoxically, become strengthened. Against common sense, I contend that the relationship between hate and revolution is such that, as equality increases in society, so does hate." Davis pursues his exploration of the constitutive relationship between hate and equality through readings of two texts by Alexis de Tocqueville. "Tocqueville confirms the phenomenon wherein hate increases in relation to equality by turning to the German peasantry where, because of social conditions inverse to those of France, he can observe the lack of hate relative to inequality. He writes, 'At first glance, it is surprising that the Revolution, whose essential object was to abolish what remained of medieval institutions everywhere, did not break out in countries where those institutions, being better preserved, made people more aware of their oppressiveness and rigor, but rather in countries where these things were felt the least. Thus their yoke seemed most unbearable where in fact its burden was lightest' (Tocqueville 31). Astonishingly, precisely because the conditions were worse outside of France, the revolutionary spirit was less palatable. The German peasantry didn't hate their lords because the system they were part of became naturalized over time. If benefits or privileges were granted, equalizing the conditions of the dominant and subjugated classes, hate would increase in relation to the extent that the lower classes were humanized. The revolutionary spirit, Tocqueville notes, spread to the areas outside of France that were in closest geographical proximity to it due to the fact that conditions in these areas were closer to France's." Davis' excellent paper is worth reading in full. In addition, you can read the rest of the winning essays here.
For National Poetry Month, The Boston Review is printing a two-part interview in which Adam Fitzgerald questions the recently deceased poet Mark Strand in what turns out to be his last interview. Part one is now available, where Strand talks about his early interest in art, his development as a poet, and what poetry can and should not do. "AF: In your famous Paris Review interview with Wallace Shawn, you say, 'We don't read a poem to find the meaning of life.' MS: Well, the meanings are embedded in the poems, but I think the poems represent a particular vision of an individual living in the mid-20th century. And into the 21st. I can't claim that they are more than that. They don't tell you how to live your life. Poems that purport to give the reader the meaning of life would tell you this should be the meaning of life, but I don't preach. I'm not a preacher. I'm always astonished when I read some of my earlier poems. They're very much like what I would have written today. They have a slightly different way, but the kind of anxiety that exists in the earlier poems, the sort of spookiness, even the humor is in some of them. I was writing prose poems all along. Because it's fun. I wrote because I enjoyed it. It was work, and it was frustrating, but all in all, when you've finished a poem, you have this thing that didn't exist and it exists independently of anything else. There's nothing else in the world exactly like it. It's not a multiple of anything. It's simply there. And you brought it into the world. It's pretty amazing. To do something that's never been done."
On the principle that what we don't see might matter more than what we do, UK-based artist James Bridle has put together a short movie of representations of British deportment centers using Computer Generated Images (CGI) rather than film or photographs. Cassie Packard considers how this changes how we understand what we're blind to: "As Bridle put it frankly in a recent interview, 'Having no pictures available of a phenomenon has become a technique of not talking about it.' Accordingly, Bridle's oeuvre has aimed to reveal the concealed. In past work he has drawn attention to covert drone strikes by regularly posting satellite imagery of strike locations to Instagram account Dronestagram and by painting life-size drone-shaped shadows onto the ground in such politicized locations as London and Washington DC. Through his work on drone strikes, Bridle became interested in issues of contested citizenships, and the manner in which UK citizenship is stripped or denied behind closed doors. On view at The Photographer's Gallery in London, his latest project Seamless Transitions sheds much-needed light on some of the UK's more out-of-sight immigration and deportation practices.... The Photographer's Gallery commissioned Seamless Transitions as a complement to the main exhibition on view, a show of black-and-white documentary photography entitled Human Rights Human Wrongs. The pairing of Seamless Transitions with Human Rights Human Wrongs is an astute one that puts two strains of human rights documentary side by side. Seamless Transitions can be a bit emotionally anesthetized as it expresses a concern for human rights without depicting any humans, instead focusing on the shifting legalities and neoliberal networks--there is no one person responsible for anti-immigration measures--that violate human rights. Human Rights Human Wrongs, on the other hand, features more traditional human rights documentary, engaging the viewer emotionally as it zooms in on the lives and narratives of oft-disenfranchised individuals in wars, racism, and political conflict. In marrying these two factions of the genre, The Photographer's Gallery wisely proposes that, to address today's numerous and nuanced human rights violations, we need both."
Franҫois Kiper takes on the high energy HBO newsmagazine Vice, wondering aloud whether it's the news we need: "To be sure, the screaming promotion of 'real time' live action and melodramatic clashes is unremarkable in the age of 'infotainment,' where stories are fodder for the feeding frenzy of 24-hour news cycles. However, unlike CNN, FOX News, MSNBC, and their myriad online and TV epigones, VICE's mode of firsthand reporting purports to transcend the mind-numbing formula of clamoring demagogues and nonstop pulp newscasts we have all become inured to. Accordingly, VICE packages its 'real time,' 'on the ground'--but meticulously curated and slickly engineered-'exposés' as the gospel-truth of news, specifically targeting the all-important 18-40-year-old demographic that looks at everything with an overstimulated and jaundiced eye. While these jaded young and middle-aged viewers are unlikely to take what they see on cable news networks with anything more than a grain of salt, TV ratings reveal that they are susceptible to VICE's cult of Immersion... Nevertheless, it is not difficult to understand VICE's popularity: the show enthralls its audience with the frisson of alarm and impending melodrama. A more pressing question is: what's at stake? Smith contends that VICE's content--which Dan Rather felicitously termed 'more Jackass than journalism'--is just what 'young people, who are ... angry, disenfranchised, and ... don't like or trust mainstream media outlets' want. Indeed, a kind of mythomania has developed around VICE, as if Smith and his cohorts are media firebrands ruffling the hoary feathers of the fourth estate by intruding on its fusty, out-of-touch conventions. And yet, VICE's sensational approach is itself a radically conventional and historically reactionary journalistic method."
Ian Crouch worries about Amazon's new "dash button," a device designed to be placed at strategic points in your house to help speed the delivery of individual household items that you've run out of: "What if there is actual value in running out of things? The sinking feeling that comes as you yank a garbage bag out of the box and meet no resistance from further reinforcements is also an opportunity to ask yourself all kinds of questions, from 'Do I want to continue using this brand of bag?' to 'Why in the hell I am producing so much trash?' The act of shopping--of leaving the house and going to a store, or, at the very least, of one-click ordering on the Amazon Web site--is a check against the inertia of consumption, not only in personal economic terms but in ethical ones as well. It is the chance to make a decision, a choice--even if that choice is simply to continue consuming. Look, we're all going to keep using toothpaste, and the smarter consumer is the person who has a ten-pack of tubes from Costco in the closet. But shopping should make you feel bad, if only for a second. Pressing a little plastic button is too much fun."
Julia Hutton tracks the money that comes into communities, large and small, after a tragedy, and finds that many aid agencies have trouble sorting out how best to spend money: "With no template to guide their decisions, nonprofits and relief-fund panels are still being left to improvise in a charged atmosphere. Many cities today have no better option than picking up the phone and calling Columbine for advice. Small towns and suburbs may be especially hard-pressed to meet the challenges that come with dispersing victim funds, but claims of mismanagement and insensitivity also dogged New York following September 11th and Oklahoma City after the bombing there. Tucson, Arizona, is one community that found its way through the complexities of distributing aid to victims without a fight."
A one-day conference sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College, the Human Rights Project, and the Center for Civic Engagement, with support from the Ford Foundation, The Brenthurst Foundation, and Rift Valley Institute.
Free and open to the public!
Monday, April 6, 2015
Bard College Campus Center, Weis Cinema, 10:00 am - 7:00 pm
Joy Connolly, a Professor of Classics at New York University, will discuss her book The Life of Roman Republicanism (Princeton 2014), which examines key themes in Roman republican thought: freedom, recognition, antagonism, self-knowledge, irony, and imagination.
Free and open to the public!
Wednesday, April 22, 2015
Location TBA, 6:00 pm
HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.
For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at email@example.com.
Friday, April 24, 2015
Bluejeans.com, 11:00 am - 12:00 pm
This event, which features a keynote address, several panels, and a performance, will offer a unique opportunity to consider the intersection of both the scholarly and artistic work of H. G. Adler, a major thinker and writer who is just becoming known in English.
Sponsored by the Hannah Arendt Center, The Bard Translation Initiative, Jewish Studies, German Studies, and Human Rights Project.
Free and open to the public!
Monday, May 4, 2015
Location TBA, 4:00 pm - 6:00 pm
Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center's eighth annual fall conference, "Privacy: Why Does It Matter?," will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We'll see you there!
This week on the Blog, Jeffrey Jurgens explains how Arendt's treatment of Socrates warns us of the ways in which abridged thinking can beget cynicism in the Quote of the Week. Edward de Bono, originator of the term "lateral thinking," provides this week's Thoughts on Thinking. We announce the winners of the Academic Initiative on Hate and the Human Condition Essay Contest and publish their essays on our blog. And we share a photograph of a personal Arendtian library provided by one of our Twitter followers in this week's Library feature.
"The state of affairs, which indeed is equaled nowhere else in the world, can properly be called mass culture; its promoters are neither the masses nor their entertainers, but are those who try to entertain the masses with what once was an authentic object of culture, or to persuade them that Hamlet can be as entertaining as My Fair Lady, and educational as well. The danger of mass education is precisely that it may become very entertaining indeed; there are many great authors of the past who have survived centuries of oblivion and neglect, but it is still an open question whether they will be able to survive an entertaining version of what they have to say. "
-Hannah Arendt, "Mass Culture and Mass Media"
I recently completed work on a book entitled Amazing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman's Brave New World Revisited, to be published by Peter Lang. And as the title implies, the book takes up the arguments made by Postman in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, published nearly three decades ago, and considers them in light of the contemporary media environment, and the kind of culture that it has given rise to. I bring this up because the passage from Hannah Arendt's essay, "Mass Culture and Mass Media," is a quote that I first read in Amusing Ourselves to Death. Interestingly, Postman used it not in his chapter on education, but in one focusing on religion, one that placed particular emphasis on the phenomenon of televangelism that exploded into prominence back in the eighties. To put the quote into the context that Postman had earlier placed it in, he prefaced the passage with the following:
There is a final argument that whatever criticisms may be made of televised religion, there remains the inescapable fact that it attracts viewers by the millions. This would appear to be the meaning of the statements, quoted earlier by Billy Graham and Pat Robertson, that there is a need for it among the multitude. To which the best reply I know was made by Hannah Arendt, who, in reflecting on the products of mass culture, wrote:
And this is where Arendt's quote appears, after which Postman provides the following commentary:
If we substitute the word "religion" for Hamlet, and the phrase "great religious traditions" for "great authors of the past," this question may stand as the decisive critique of televised religion. There is no doubt, in other words, that religion can be made entertaining. The question is, by doing so, do we destroy it as an "authentic object of culture"? And does the popularity of a religion that employs the full resources of vaudeville drive more traditional religious conceptions into manic and trivial displays?
In returning to Postman's critique of the age of television, I decided to use this same quote in my own book, noting how Postman had used it earlier, but this time placing it in a chapter on education. In particular, I brought it up following a brief discussion of the latest fad in higher education, massive open online courses, abbreviated as MOOCs.
A MOOC can contain as many as 100,000 students, which raises the question of, in what sense is a MOOC a course, and in what sense is the instructor actually teaching? It is perhaps revealing that the acronym MOOC is a new variation on other terms associated with new media, such as MMO, which stands for massive multiplayer online (used to describe certain types of games), and the more specific MMORPG, which stands for massive multiplayer online role-playing game. These terms are in turn derived from older ones such as MUD, multi-user dungeon, and MUSH, multi-user shared hallucination, and also MOO, multi-user dungeon, object oriented. In other words, the primary connotation is with gaming, not education. Holding this genealogy aside, it is clear that offering MOOCs is presently seen as a means to lend prestige to universities, and they may well be a means to bring education to masses of people who could not otherwise afford a college course, and also to individuals who are not interested in pursuing traditional forms of education, but then again, there is nothing new about the phenomenon of the autodidact, which was made possible by the spread of literacy and easy availability of books. There is no question that much can be learned from reading books, or listening to lectures via iTunes, or watching presentations on YouTube, but is that what we mean by education? By teaching?
Regarding Arendt's comments on the dangers of mass education, we might look to the preferences of the most affluent members of our society? What do people with the means to afford any type of education available tend to choose for their children, and for themselves? The answer, of course, is traditional classrooms with very favorable teacher-student ratios, if not private, one-on-one tutoring (the same is true for children with special needs, such as autism). There should be no question as to what constitutes the best form of education, and it may be that we do not have the resources to provide it, but still we can ask whether money should be spent on equipping classrooms with the latest in educational technology, when the same limited resources could be used to hire more teachers? It is a question of judgment, of the ability to decide on priorities based on objective assessment, rather than automatically jumping on the new technology bandwagon time and time again.
The broader question that concerns both Arendt and Postman is whether serious discourse, be it educational, religious, or political, can survive the imperative to make everything as entertaining as possible. For Arendt, this was a feature of mass media and their content, mass culture. Postman argues that of the mass media, print media retains a measure of seriousness, insofar as the written word is a relatively abstract form of communication, one that provides some degree of objective distance from its subject matter, and that requires relatively coherent forms of organization. Television, on the other hand, is an image-centered medium that places a premium on attracting and keeping audiences, not to mention the fact that of all the mass media, it is the most massive. The bias of the television medium is towards showing, rather than telling, towards displaying exciting visuals, and therefore towards entertaining content. Of course, it's possible to run counter to the medium's bias, in which case you get something like C-SPAN, whose audience is miniscule.
The expansion of television via cable and satellite has given us better quality entertainment, via the original series appearing on HBO, Showtime, Starz, and AMC, but the same is not true about the quality of journalism. Cable news on CNN, MSNBC, and FOX does not provide much in the way of in-depth reporting or thoughtful analysis. Rather, what we get is confrontation and conflict, which of course is dramatic, and above all entertaining, but contributes little to the democratic political process. Consider that at the time of the founding of the American republic, the freedom to express opinions via speech and press was associated with the free marketplace of ideas, that is, with the understanding that different views can be subject to relatively objective evaluation, different descriptions can be examined in order to determine which one best matches with reality, different proposals can be analyzed in order to determine which one might be the best course of action. The exchange of opinions was intended to open up discussion, and eventually lead to some form of resolution. Today, as can be seen best on cable news networks, when pundits express opinions, it's to close down dialogue, the priority being to score points, to have the last word if possible, and at minimum to get across a carefully prepared message, rather than to listen to what the other person has to say, and find common ground. And this is reflected in Congress, as our elected representatives are unwilling to talk to each other, work with each other, negotiate settlements, and actually be productive as legislators.
Once upon a time, the CBS network news anchor Walter Cronkite was dubbed "the most trusted man in American." And while his version of the news conformed to the biases of the television medium, still he tried to engage in serious journalism as much as he was able to within those constraints. Today, we would be hard put to identify anyone as our most trusted source of information, certainly none of the network news anchors would qualify, but if anyone deserves the title, at least for a large segment of American society, it would be Jon Stewart of The Daily Show. And while there is something to be said for the kind of critique that he and his compatriot Stephen Colbert provide, what they provide us with, after all, are comedy programs, and at best we can say that they do not pretend to be providing anything other than entertainment. But we are left with the question, when so many Americans get their news from late night comedians, does that mean that journalism has become a joke?
Cable television has also given us specialized educational programming via the National Geographic Channel, the History Channel, and the Discovery Channel, and while this has provided an avenue for the dissemination of documentaries, audiences are especially drawn to programs such as Dog Whisperer with Cesar Milan, Moonshiners, Ancient Aliens, UFO Files, and The Nostradamus Effect. On the Animal Planet channel, two specials entitled Mermaids: The Body Found and Mermaids: The New Evidence, broadcast in 2012 and 2013 respectively, gave the cable outlet its highest ratings in its seventeen-year history. These fake documentaries were assumed to be real by many viewers, prompting the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to issue a statement stating that mermaids do not actually exist. And it is almost to easy to mention that The Learning Channel, aka TLC, has achieved its highest ratings by turning to reality programs, such as Toddlers & Tiaras, and its notorious spin-off, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.
Many more examples come to mind, but it is also worth asking whether Facebook status updates and tweets on Twitter provide any kind of alternative to serious, reasoned discourse? In the foreword to Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman wrote, "As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists 'failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions.'" Does the constant barrage of stimuli that we receive today via new media, and the electronic media in general, make it easier or harder for us to think, and to think about thinking, as Arendt would have us do? Huxley's final words in Brave New World Revisited are worth recalling:
Meanwhile, there is still some freedom left in the world. Many young people, it is true, do not seem to value freedom. But some of us still believe that, without freedom, human beings cannot become fully human and that freedom is therefore supremely valuable. Perhaps the forces that now menace freedom are too strong to be resisted for very long. It is still our duty to do whatever we can to resist them. (1958, pp. 122-123)
It's not that distractions and entertainment are inherently evil, or enslaving, but what Huxley, Postman, and Arendt all argue for is the need for placing limits on our amusements, maintaining a separation between contexts, based on what content is most appropriate. Or as was so famously expressed in Ecclesiastes: "To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven." The problem is that now the time is always 24/7/365, and the boundaries between contexts dissolve within the electronic media environment. Without a context, there is no balance, the key ecological value that relates to the survival, and sustainability of any given culture. For Postman, whose emphasis was on the prospects for democratic culture, we have become a culture dangerously out of balance. For Arendt, in "Mass Culture and Mass Media," the emphasis was somewhat different, but the conclusion quite similar, as can be seen in her final comments:
An object is cultural to the extent that it can endure; this durability is the very opposite of its functionality, which is the quality which makes it disappear again from the phenomenal world by being used and used up. The "thingness" of an object appears in its shape and appearance, the proper criterion of which is beauty. If we wanted to judge an object by its use value alone, and not also by its appearance… we would first have to pluck out our eyes. Thus, the functionalization of the world which occurs in both society and mass society deprives the world of culture as well as beauty. Culture can be safe only with those who love the world for its own sake, who know that without the beauty of man-made, worldly things which we call works of art, without the radiant glory in which potential imperishability is made manifest to the world and in the world, all human life would be futile and no greatness could endure.
Our constant stream of technological innovation continues to contribute to the functionalization of the world, and the dominance of what Jacques Ellul called "la technique," the drive toward efficiency as the only value that can be effectively invoked in the kind of society that Postman termed a technopoly, a society in which culture is completed dominated by this technological imperative. The futility of human life that Arendt warns us about is masked by our never-ending parade of distractions and amusements; the substitution of the trivial for greatness is disguised by the quality and quantity of our entertainment. We experience the extremes of the hyperrational and the hyperreal, both of which focus our attention on the ephemeral, rather than the eternal that Arendt upholds. She argues for the importance of loving the world for its own sake, which requires us to be truly ecological in our orientation, balanced in our approach, clear and true in our minds and our hearts. Is there any question that this is what is desperately needed today? Is there any question that this is what seems to elude us time and time again, as all of our innovations carry us further and further away from the human lifeworld?
This past weekend I took the time to watch Eugene Jarecki’s new documentary film The House I Live In, which calls passionately and insistently for the U.S. to end its decades-long War on Drugs. Jarecki’s previous documentary work includes The Trials of Henry Kissinger (2002) and Why We Fight (2006), and he is known for activist filmmaking that combines sharp social commentary with fluid storytelling. There is much to admire in Jarecki’s take on the effort to stamp out illicit drugs, and given the massive racial and class disparities that have emerged in prosecution and sentencing, he is right to cast the War as a litmus test of our national commitment to equitable democratic citizenship. But there is also something about the manner in which he makes his case, and the very sweep of his vision, that gives me momentary pause.
Let me touch on the film’s strong suits first. Above all else, Jarecki sheds powerful light on the intimate impacts of the drug trade and the law enforcement crackdown against it. He does so in no small part by giving a prominent role to Nannie Jeter, the African-American woman that Jarecki’s family employed as a housekeeper in his youth. (Nannie is Jeter’s given name, not a reference to her role in the family’s life.) Jarecki regards Jeter as a second mother, and he often played with her children as a boy. We learn, however, that their paths in the world diverged sharply from his own, and several of them eventually became entangled in drug use, drug-related HIV/AIDS, and incarceration. Jarecki unflinchingly relates how his family’s privilege had adverse if unintended consequences for Jeter’s, and while some viewers might fault him for inserting himself into the film, his approach ultimately lends moral heft to his pointed political argument. Jarecki maintains that we are all implicated in the circumstances that led to the War on Drugs, and he refuses to remove himself from the film’s critical scrutiny.
In addition, The House I Live In includes revealing commentary from the many varied participants in the American drug crackdown: dealers and cops, defendants and judges, prisoners and wardens, activists and lawmakers, parents and children. The film features articulate reflections from people who have dealt drugs in the past and are now in correctional custody. Significantly, not one of these individuals denies responsibility for their actions—“I messed up” is a common refrain—but all seek to situate their decisions and actions within larger structures of constraint and disadvantage. At the same time, Jarecki includes remarkably candid insights from law enforcement personnel. Although a few of them make disturbing admissions about the perverse incentives that encourage profiling and drug-bust profiteering, the film does not demonize police officers and corrections officials. It instead allows them to express both the pride and the ambivalence they feel toward their work.
Lastly, Jarecki musters a wide array of legal and other experts, including prominent academics like Michelle Alexander and Charles Ogletree, to lend his film critical perspective and authority. To be sure, almost all of these commentators are sympathetic to Jarecki’s viewpoint, but it is nevertheless refreshing to hear intellectuals speak as intellectuals in any kind of feature-length American film. What is more, these figures do not merely touch on what are, at least for me, the most familiar and even well-worn points about recent drug-related criminal justice: the introduction of mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines in the 1970s and 1980s, the precipitous increase in rates of incarceration, and the dramatic expansion that ensued in both the state-run and private prison industries. For these commentators also relate the War on Drugs to the years of Jim Crow in the South; the Great Migration of African Americans to the Northeast and Midwest; the redlining and other practices that contributed to the formation of racially segregated ghettos; and the far-reaching impacts of deindustrialization. This attention to the longue durée of U.S. history is one of the film’s strongest attributes.
At the same time, Jarecki’s commitment to accessible and engaging narrative sometimes gets him into trouble. Although he and his collaborators are quick to criticize the reductive sound-bites that have defined mainstream public discourse from Nixon to George W. Bush, the film is occasionally too content to rely on its own slick editing and glib turns of phrase. There are also moments when sobriety yields too much ground to showmanship. Of all his interlocutors, Jarecki grants the most prominent role not to any person directly impacted by the War on Drugs, but to David Simon, the former journalist who went on to create the HBO hit “The Wire.” To his credit, Simon is a generally subdued and thoughtful commentator, but should the maker of a television series, however relevant and critically acclaimed, really receive this kind of precedence?
Jarecki’s priorities as a filmmaker also entail some unfortunate substantive trade-offs. At one key point in the film, he relies on interview footage with several experts to contend that the criminalization of opium, cocaine, and marijuana in the early twentieth century was not ultimately driven by benign public health and safety concerns; it was rather motivated by racially charged anxieties over the arrival of immigrant groups and the challenges they posed to white workers on local and regional labor markets. I am willing to grant that racist and nativist resentments may have played some role in the crackdowns against the users and distributors of these substances.
I can only imagine, however, that this claim—at least in its bald formulation in the film—is much more contentious in scholarly and other circles than Jarecki is prepared to admit here.In any case, such a line of argument cannot explain the more recent public response to methamphetamine, a drug that is more closely associated with (poor) whites than any minority or immigrant group.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the film, however, concerns the dubious parallels that Jarecki proposes between the War on Drugs and other cases of group exclusion and violence. Drawing once more on footage from multiple interviewees, he suggests that American law enforcement since the late 1960s has followed a sequence of collective identification, ostracism, confiscation, concentration, and annihilation that can also be observed (most notably) in the Nazi genocide of European Jewry. The film is quick to add that the “chain of destruction” evident in the contemporary U.S. is not equivalent to the one that unfolded in Central and Eastern Europe during World War II. But that does not prevent David Simon from casting the War on Drugs as “a Holocaust in slow motion” against America’s poor and minority populations. Such hyperbolic language strikes me not just as deeply misguided, but entirely unnecessary. Viewers do not need such problematic analogies in order to grasp the film’s claims and stakes.
Despite these warts and missteps, The House I Live In is well worth watching. The film makes a daring claim on viewers’ conscience, and it calls on all of us to undertake the challenging work of thinking through our convictions as citizens in fundamental ways. We need more, not less, of this kind of provocation.